trans. Wong Yoo-Chong
The Movement of Laozi’s Dialectical Dao
The phenomenon represented by the character, fǎn 反, is everywhere for anyone who cares to look: from the movements of galaxies, stars, and seasons to oscillating neutrinos, as well as the boom and bust of markets, all the way to reaction–formation and counter–phobia as defenses in our psyches. Fǎn has multifaceted meanings, with similar functions as the English prefixes “anti,” “contra,” and “re”. Fǎn also represents the idea of reversal behind the English word “universe,” as circularity is the universal movement that evolves around a center—the eye of a typhoon, a star around which planets evolve, or a black hole at the center of every galaxy. Fǎn is perhaps analogous to the German word aufheben that expresses Hegel’s idea of “negation of the negation,” a spiral path of thought that circles back to the point of origin in search of the truth. Fǎn might aptly express Isaac Newton’s third law of physics—when one object hits another, a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction will be exerted. It could also explain the term “blowback” in CIA parlance, suggesting that aggressors inevitably suffer the atrocities they initiate.
This simple character fǎn, composed of two swishes next to the radical yòu 又 that means “also” and “again,” has guided Chinese civilization from the earliest times. The idea of fǎn behind the set phrase “all things return to their origins upon reaching the apogee” (wùjí bìfǎn 物極必反) refers to returning to the center, going back to the root, to one’s essence, to the self, as a sort of homecoming, whenever a limit is reached. It is a natural means to maintain the yin–yang balance and to return to the primordial source to begin yet another round of transformation. Fǎn has become the basis for a range of human activities from meditation to martial arts, architecture, herbalism, geomancy, and military stratagem. In everyday speech, as well as in literature, it is customary to frame paradoxical statements with parallel couplets. The sexagesimal cycle of the Chinese calendar is another example.
During the Warring States era (402–221 BCE), the Old Master seized upon the principle of paradox, fǎn, to express the ethics he had developed in his eponymous book, the Laozi 老子.1 In it, he attempted to restore the yin–yang 陰陽 harmony by promoting feminine, or yin, societal values to counterbalance the masculine, or yang, values promoted by other thinkers of his time, especially those of the mainstream Confucians. This caused the Old Master to be seen as a contrarian for advocating the undesirable. The Old Master’s radical cure for the problem of human enterprise was to turn aspects of human nature on their heads, urging people to stop regarding themselves as the center of the universe and to reverse their avarice and ambition and to stop pursuing power, wealth, and notoriety.
According to the Old Master’s cosmology, the universe began with the nebulous Dao creating primordial nothingness that gave way to a somethingness that evolved into the yin–yang polarity that produces all the elements of existence. In this context, fǎn expresses the dichotomy of these poles, as well as their harmonious equilibrium. 2,500 years after the writing of the Laozi, it has become critical for us to apply the principle of fǎn as a guide for living in the brave, overheated world we have created. Beyond that, we might learn to use it to hold the nuances of both sides of all paradoxes in order to return to the peace of the One that is the Dao. Given its importance, it should be no surprise that all eighty–one verses reflect the cosmic irony and perfect paradox expressed by fǎn, even though the word itself only appears in three of them. The following are my translations and analyses of these few poems.
In recent years linguists have reconstructed the language of the Laozi era (pre–221 BCE), enabling me to reunite its phonology with its philology and philosophy. In my translation, I use the transliteration for the noun Dao whenever the Old Master uses it to express something beyond its literal meanings of “the path.” I eliminate punctuation in order to emulate the form of earlier texts, whose five thousand characters run continuously without punctuation or breaks, but insert line and stanza breaks in order to make the text more comprehensible.2 Chinese and English words are aligned side–by–side so that those who do not read Chinese can see the repeating characters and parallel structures. To appreciate how these verses may have sounded when they were first chanted, I provide the phonetics of the text in both modern Mandarin pinyin Romanization and pre–221 BCE Old Chinese pronunciation as reconstructed by Axel Schuessler and Baxter–Sagart.3
Cyclical Is the movement of Dao
Weakness Is the usefulness of Dao
All things in the world originate from form
Form originates from formlessness
Mandarin Pinyin Transliteration
fǎn zhě dào zhī dòng
ruò zhě dào zhī yòng
tiān xià wàn wù shēng yú yǒu
yǒu shēng yú wú
Schuessler Baxter–Sagart OC (pre–206 BCE) Transliteration in IPA
panʔ taʔ lʕuʔ tə dôŋʔ
newk taʔ lʕuʔ tə loŋ
l̥ʕin gʕraʔ mans mut sreŋ ʔa ɢwəʔ
ɢwəʔ sreŋ ʔa ma
The Old Master uses the briefest verse of only twenty–one characters, to set forth his most fundamental principles—reversal Cə.panʔ (fǎn 反)—the paradoxical nature of the Dao and the function of being weak newk (ruò 弱). These words are followed by three identical middle sounds, taʔ lʕuʔ–s tə (zhe daozhi 者道之) that lead to the rhyming sounds of “movement” dôŋʔ (dong 動) and “function” m.loŋ–s (yong 用) at the end of the lines. At first glance, these ideas seem to form an odd, asymmetrical pair; whereas, in fact, they form the basis for the Dao’s movement, which is perpetual and in which “weakness” connotes submission. Both are prominent attributes of the ineffable and all pervasive Dao.
Linear movement sends us to extremes and into oblivion because it lacks a center that provides equilibrium; a circular path assures peace and renewal. Cyclical movement denotes a self–regulating homeostasis. The second line emphasizes not exerting strength. The Old Master seems to be trying to pry us away from our propensity for making a beeline toward what we want. Instead he tells us to relax, to submit ourselves to the vagaries of nature. That is the reason why the wise, when faced with difficult situations, step back to breathe and to meditate, letting the solution come to them: by letting go of their own agenda they can harness the great flow of the primordial source. This is the essential basis of most Chinese martial arts and military stratagems (e.g., Sunzi’s Art of War). The basic principle involves keeping our bodies flexible enough to facilitate a recoiling movement such as that of drawing a bow in preparation for shooting an arrow, instead of using leverage, as in the case of brute linear force. The discipline of Taiji 太極, for instance, involves breathing harmoniously to restore the innate ability to allow involuntary movement in a circular motion; the Japanese term Judo 柔道 literally means the “Gentle Way.”
The ending character ɢwəʔ (yǒu 有) of the first line in the second stanza begins the second line, linking the two with a reduplicated sound. The compound sreŋ ʔa (shengyu) 生於 anchors both lines of the stanza. This stanza continues the theme of reversal by contrasting “existence” ɢwəʔ (yǒu 有) with “nonexistence” ma (wú 無), reiterating the fact that the universe issued from the Dao’s unitary nothingness and morphed into a somethingness that produced the duality of yin–yang that gave rise to the universe as we know it (Verse 42):
Dao creates one
One creates two
Two create three
Three create everything
Implicit in this verse is its advocacy of the yin on the yin–yang spectrum. People often take movement to be movement without realizing that within movement there is stillness. Most can perceive and appreciate existence while remaining ignorant of nonexistence; all strive to be strong, while avoiding weakness. The Old Master tells us that movement stirs from quietude and that if we desire to be strong we must first cultivate weakness.
Something amorphous formed
Before the birth of the cosmos
Standing alone without change
Circling around without end
It can be considered to be the mother of all cosmos
I know not its name
So I style it the Dao
If I must call it something I would call it great
Greatness infers expansion
Vanishing infers great distance
Distance infers return
The Dao is great
Heaven is great
Earth is great
The wise are also great
Within the realm there are four greats
And the wise are one
People emulate earth
Earth emulates the cosmos
The cosmos emulates the Dao
The Dao emulates self just so
Mandarin Pinyin Transliteration
yǒu wù hùn chéng
xiān tiān dì shēng
jì xī liáo xī
dú lì ér bù gǎi
zhōu xíng ér bù dài
kě yǐ wéi tiān dì mǔ
wú bù zhī qí míng
zì zhī yuē dào
qiáng wéi zhī míng yuē dà
dà yuē shì
shì yuē yuǎn
yuǎn yuē fǎn
wáng yì dà
yù zhōng yǒu sì dà
ér wáng jū qí yī yān
rén fǎ dì
dì fǎ tiān
tiān fǎ dào
dào fǎ zì rán
Schuessler Baxter–Sagart OC (pre–206 BCE) Transliteration in IPA
ɢwəʔ mut gʕur deŋ
sʕər l̥ʕin lʕej sreŋ
dʕiwk gʕe riû gʕe
dʕok rəp ne pə qʕəʔ
tiw grâŋ ne pə lʕəʔ
khʕajʔ ləʔ ɢwaj l̥ʕin lʕej məʔ
ŋʕa pə tre khrət
dzə tə meŋ ɢwat lʕuʔ
kaŋ ɢwaj tə ɢwat lʕat
lʕat ɢwat dat
dat ɢwat ɢwanʔ
ɢwanʔ ɢwat panʔ
ɢwaŋ ɢak lʕat
ɢwrək truŋ ɢwəʔ lij lʕat
ne ɢwrək ka khrət ʔit ʔan
niŋ kap lʕej
lʕej kap l̥ʕin
l̥ʕin kap lʕuʔ
lʕuʔ kap tsit nan
The Old Master uses this long and melodic verse rich with parallelism, compound rhymes, and internal and end rhymes to express his ontology. The first half of this verse describes how the universe came into being; the last half shows us where people fit, leading to the hypostasis of his book—“naturally so” (zìrán 自然).
The verse begins with a sparse couplet of four–syllable lines that end in rhyming m–deŋ (chéng) 成 and sreŋ (shēng) 生. It postulates primordial elements coalesced to form all the energy and matter of the universe, a concept we might align with that of the Big Bang. The next stanza describes the unique properties of the ineffable Dao that gave birth to the cosmos without mentioning Dao by name. The first line consists of two adjectives, followed by an exclamatory article gʕe (xī 兮). The next two lines talk about the Dao’s unchanging singularity with the repeating sounds of ne pə (érbù 而不) rhyming internally between them.
At the beginning of the third stanza, the Old Master declares that he has arbitrarily chosen the words Dao and “great,” since he does not know what to call this ineffable thing. The ending sound of the first line of this stanza C.meŋ (míng 名) rhymes with both end rhymes— m–deŋ (chéng) 成 and sreŋ (shēng) 生of the first stanza. The second and third lines have a pair of compound rhymes in mə–dzə–s tə (zìzhī 字之) and ɢwat lʕat–s (yuēdà 曰大). The third and fourth lines are linked by a pair of end rhymes— lʕat–s(s dà 大) and dat–s (shì 逝)—as are fifth and sixth lines— C.ɢwanʔ (yuǎn 遠) and Cə.panʔ (fǎn 反). This pattern is repeated at the end of the next stanza— ʔan (yān 焉)—and at the end of the verse— nan (rán 然). The quotation verb ɢwat (yuē 曰) holds the penultimate position in all but the first line of the stanza. It provides the common sound throughout, forming a chain link structure in which the last word of each line initiates the next. The sounds demonstrate reversal, as last becomes first. Space–time expands throughout the universe, but upon reaching its furthest limits, it reverses course. Recent scientific findings confirm that the universe is expanding and that its movement is indeed circular, as planets circle their stars and stars evolve around rotating black holes.
The first three lines of the fourth stanza use the Dao as a segue to shift the focus to what the ancient Chinese considered to be the “three realms”—the cosmos, the earth, and humanity, with a series of two– or three–syllable lines. All but the last lines of this stanza share an end rhyme, lʕat–s (dà 大), which modifies the Dao as all–pervasive and creative. However, in the next three lines, “greatness” denotes the cosmos, the earth, and wise people who are endowed with the Dao. The chain structure heightens the interconnectedness of the “three realms.” Even though humanity dwells in one of these “realms,” most people are oblivious of the Dao and live their lives willfully over–exerting their yang attributes, disturbing the yin–yang equilibrium. On a macro level, this results in the overheating of the planet, which decimates other species, creating extreme inequality and bloodshed among people themselves. Only the wise attempt to emulate the Dao, which gives them the responsibility to transmit the cosmic Dao, much as lightning rods conduct lightning charges into the ground.
The interlocking structure of the text returns in the concluding stanza, first in three trisyllabic lines, beginning with humans and winding up with the Dao. The concluding place is given to “naturalness,” the only four–syllable line in the chain, emphasizing its importance. This line proclaims that even the Dao patterns itself on “naturalness.” This verse underscores the importance for humanity of joining the interwoven web of the natural world.
Did not edify their people
But kept them ignorant
The reason people are difficult to govern
Is that they are too knowledgeable
Thus to rule a state with knowledge is to steal from the state
Not to rule a state with knowledge is to benefit the state
To comprehend that these two constitute a consistent principle
To constantly comprehend this consistent principle
Is called Enigmatic Virtue
Enigmatic Virtue is deep indeed and far reaching indeed
It is contrary to worldly values
It really leads to Great Compliance 8
Mandarin Pinyin Transliteration
gǔ zhī shàn wéi dào zhě
fēi yǐ míng mín
jiàng yǐ yú zhī
mín zhī nán zhì
yǐ qí zhì duō
gù yǐ zhì zhì guó guó zhī zéi
bù yǐ zhì zhì guó guó zhī fú
zhī cǐ liǎng zhě yì jī shì
cháng zhī jī shì
shì wèi xuán dé
xuán dé shēn yǐ yuǎn yǐ
yǔ wù fǎn yǐ
nǎi zhì dà shun
Schuessler Baxter-Sagart OC (pre-206 BCE) Transliteration in IPA
kʕaʔ tə danʔ ɢwaj lʕuʔ taʔ
pəj ləʔ mraŋ miŋ
tsaŋ ləʔ ŋo tə
miŋ tə nʕar nʕə
ləʔ khrət treh lʕaj
kʕa nʕə treh nʕə kwʕək kwʕək tə dzʕək
pə nʕə treh nʕə kwʕək kwʕək tə pək
tre tsheʔ raŋʔ taʔ ɢak kʰˁijʔ ək
daŋ tre kʰˁijʔ ək
deʔ ɢwət ɢwʕin tʕək
ɢwʕin tʕək l̥əm qəʔ ɢwanʔ qəʔ
ɢaʔ mut panʔ qəʔ
nˁəʔ tit lʕat lun
This is one of the most controversial poems of the collection, not only urging rulers to keep their subjects uninformed, but also praising the value of ignorance. It does so while melodically repeating the –ə, –ək, and –ət sounds, which comprise almost half of the syllables and provide nine end rhymes over the thirteen lines. Generally the –ə sound scatters evenly, but its dense concentration announces the core idea of the verse.
The three lines of the opening stanza set the tone, rhyming with the –ə sound in the second syllables. The first line sounds reasonable enough, expressing the common reverence for antiquity, but it is followed by a controversial four–syllable couplet that implores rulers to make their subjects imbecilic, which goes directly against the conventional wisdom that people must be able to make informed choices. Over the centuries, many scholars have taken the Old Master to task for this statement.
The word “ignorant” (yú 愚) is used as a verb in this instance to mean “to make stupid, foolish.” In the time of the Laozi, it could also mean “to make someone behave humbly and simply.” Either way, the Old Master suggests that worldly knowledge is an extraneous distraction that only clutters up people’s minds and obscures their spiritual clarity. He thinks that people can only keep their minds still when they are not afflicted by the machinations of intellection; only by abandoning them, and the ambitions they precipitate, are people able to return to their innate, authentic selves, to evolve naturally according to the Dao (Verse 48):
The pursuit of Dao strips away daily
Stripping upon stripping
All the way until one does nothing
Doing nothing yet leaving nothing undone9
To revert to the essential quietude, to rediscover the Dao, one must also shut out external distractions (Verses 12 and 52):
Five colors blind people's eyes
Five sounds deafen people's ears
Five flavors deaden people's palette
Hunting on galloping horseback drives people's hearts wild
Goods that are difficult to obtain drive people to harmful paths
Block the channels Shut the doors One dies without toil
Open the channels Mind other affairs One dies without relief
The Old Master thinks nothing good comes of knowledge, since people’s instincts are mainly devious. Knowledge can only lead them down the paths of greed, aggression, and hubris, since the “people’s way” has deviated from the Dao (Verse 77):
The cosmic Dao
Takes from those with excess to replenish scarcity
The way of humans is not so
It takes from those with scarcity to offer to those with excess
Furthermore, since people do not know what they do not know, which is infinite, they have no idea about the ramifications of their actions, thus causing immense harm without knowing it. Witness the use of fossil fuel and DDT, the systematic overuse of antibiotics, the erection of dams, etc.
The –ə rhyme picks up from the opening stanza with the end rhyme in the first line of the second stanza, , nʕə (zhì 治), echoing that of the previous line, tə (zhī 之). The –ə sound appears three times in the first two lines, but they occupy thirteen of the sixteen sounds in next eight–syllable lines. In fact, these lines are identical except for their first and last words. The –ə sound provides end rhymes for all but one of the lines. Its dense concentration seems to announce the arrival of the central idea—knowledge cannot be good for anyone, which includes the ruling class. Indeed, the Old Master rejoices in his own ignorance (Verse 20):
Mine is an ignoramus’s mind
The –ə sound rhymes at the end of all the lines of the third stanza. It occupies both ends of the first and last lines and takes every other place in the middle line. “Consistent” means immutable, which could only refer to the Dao. To be constantly mindful of it is to be enlightened, which the Old Master ironically terms “dark and mysterious virtue” (xuán dé 玄德), because it is so profound that it is out of the reach of most people.
The –ə sound takes every other position of the first line of the concluding stanza and occupies the end of the middle line, as well as the head of the last line. “Oppositional” (fan 反) appears in the middle of the concluding stanza with several variant meanings. One is as I have translated it, referring to the “Enigmatic Virtue” of the previous line, the opposite of mundane knowledge and human values. Another can mean “to return” to its primary source, as noted by Wang Bi in the imperative, “Revert back to authenticity.”
The great Northern Song historian Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019–1086) commented on this passage in his Daode Zhengjing Lun 道德真經論:
None in the world does not value intellect.
Only those with enigmatic virtue depreciate it.
Though they are different from worldly people, they comply with the Dao.
The ending compound of the verse, “Great Compliance” (dàshun 大順), can also be read as the Grand Harmony, when all return to a natural state (zìrán 自然) of simplicity and harmony. It is akin to a healthy ecosystem, where all lives coexist together. The “Heaven and Earth” Chapter 天地篇 in Zhuangzi 莊子 helps to define the terms “Enigmatic Virtue” and “Great Compliance”(12.8):
Being the same, it is empty. Being empty, it is great. It’s like joining birds with their chirping. Having joined the chirping birds, one can join the universe. The joining is fuzzy.
As if foolish, as if dizzy, it is called Enigmatic Virtue, the same as the Great Compliance.
Another paradox of the Old Master’s is “doing nothing” (wúwéi 無為), which must begin with ignorance; but, we must also live with some knowledge, otherwise we would not even be able to read the Laozi. Because of this, I believe that the Old Master uses the term “ignorant” advisedly, as a counterbalance to our placing too much importance on “intelligence.” Perhaps he makes such a shocking statement in order to remind us of the perils of our hyperactivity and the consequences of even our noblest ambitions. The irony is that those who do not seek after knowledge may have a better grasp of truth and of reality than those who dedicate their lives to achieving it and who are, precisely because they are so well informed, entirely ignorant of the Dao.
1 Laozi 老子 (Lao–tzu in the Wade–Giles Romanization system of Chinese Mandarin) literally means the “Old Master,” the putative author credited with having written this eponymous text. He was believed to have lived sometime between the end of the Spring and Autumn era (770–481 BCE), but no verifiable facts can be established about the existence of such a person, so the “Old Master” has become a mythical figure who serves the “author function” for the text of Laozi. [See Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books 1984), 101–20.] Recent rediscoveries of ancient texts have convinced many scholars that the Laozi was most likely completed or compiled between the late fourth and early third century BCE. [See William H. Baxter, “Situating the Language of Laozi,” in Lao–tzu and the Tao–te–ching, ed. Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue (Albany: State University of New York, 1998), 249.] The text became known in the first century BCE as the “Scripture of the Dao and its Virtue” (Daodejing or Tao Te Ching 道德經), a sacred Daoist 道教 text to be incanted for the benefit of the self and of the state. [See Alan K.L. Chan, “The Daodejing and Its Tradition,” in Daoist Handbook, ed. Livia Kohn (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 1–25.] ↩
2 The “origin” of Laozi remains elusive, even after earlier versions of the text were discovered through excavations in the twentieth century. The latest scholarly findings tend to support the hypothesis that these verses did not originate from a single source or from the hand of the putative author. Instead, they probably began as oral teachings, sayings, and “aphorisms” collected over time, resulting in the fact that all known versions of the text differ from each other in minor ways. [See William G. Boltz, “Lao–tzu Tao–te–ching,” in Early Chinese Texts, A Bibliographical Guide, Vol. 2, ed. Michael Lowe (Berkeley: University of California Institute of East Asian Studies, 1993), 269–93.] ↩
3 Axel Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009). William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart, “Baxter–Sagart Old Chinese Reconstruction,” 20 May 2012. ↩
4 This four–word line comes from the Guodian, Mawangdui, Heshang Gong, and Wang Bi versions, while the Fuyi version contains six characters—故疆字之曰道. ↩
5 This line follows the Heshang Gong and Wang Bi versions. The Fuyi version shows a variant of this line as 疆為之名曰大. Both the Guodian and Mawangdui versions show an extra character, as in吾強為之名曰大. ↩
6 This line follows the Guodian, Mawangdui, and Fuyi versions, which differ from the Heshang Gong and Wang Bi versions that read: 故 道大, with an additional character, “therefore” (gù 故), at the head of the line. ↩
7 The last two lines appear just the way they read in the Heshang Gong and Mawangdui versions. In Wang Bi, however, it reads 與物反矣 然後乃至大順. In Fuyi, it reads 與物反矣 乃復至於大順. ↩
8 Submission (shun 順), similar to “flow,” “connection,” “thoroughfare,” “whole” (通). In this context, it means naturally returning to the great interconnected primacy of Dao. ↩
9 This phrase also appears in Verse 37. ↩
Wong Yoo-Chong, born in Canton, raised in Hong Kong, is working on a book synthesizing the philological, phonological, and philosophical readings of the Laozi (Daodejing). For two and a half millennia, the collection’s terse, poetic, and imagistic language has invited scholars to produce a rich variety of interpretations. It has become a continual conversation engaged by readers around the globe. Wong has joined this discussion with excerpts from his book appearing in the Denver Quarterly, Laurel Review, Sonora Review, Hotel Amerika, Orion, Omniverse, Zen Monster, and the environmental radio program Living on Earth.
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